SIOUX CITY | Living in the moment is something Jay Varady has stressed to his Sioux City Musketeers throughout the season.
All the fourth-year coach prefers to discuss is the key to winning the first game of Friday night’s United States Hockey League Clark Cup Finals against the Chicago Steel at the Tyson Events Center, rather than the entire series. It’s not in his nature to think ahead and the players from the squad which won the Anderson Cup share the same feelings.
“The job is not done,” Varady told reporters following Tuesday night’s 8-3 Game 5 Western Conference Finals series against Waterloo. “We don’t want to just be in the finals. We want to try and win it. You get into situations and do you want to be the situation or do you want to live in the situation? We have talked a lot to our group of about living in the moment.”
When Varady considers Game 1 against the Eastern Conference champions, he wants to see the aspects that came through Tuesday night.
Energy, intensity, attention to detail and focus led not only to 5-0 advantage midway through the second period against the Black Hawks. Receiving goals in the win from eight different players, the Musketeers maintained their mindset after Waterloo pulled within two goals and finished the third period strong.
Each team possesses strong forwards. Chicago’s Jack Badini is the Clark Cup Playoffs’ scoring leader with 13 points – three more than teammate Mark Johnstone and the Musketeers’ Kristian Pospisil.
Chicago posted a pair of 2-1 regular-season wins over Sioux City. Four skaters from Coach Dan Muse’s Steel posted one-goal, one-assist efforts, Jake Jaremko and Reggie Lutz in the Jan. 15 win at Fox Valley Arena in Geneva, Ill., while Brannon McManus and Eduards Tralmaks turned in those on Feb. 10 at the Tyson.
“They’re an extremely talented team,” said Varady. “They have great forwards up front. They’re skilled on the power play. Their D core really skates and breaks the puck out. They get their team generated that way. Their goaltender (Ales Stezka) is outstanding and their goaltending coach (Peter Mannino) is one of the best in the business.”
Phillip Knies scored the goal for the Musketeers in the loss at Fox Valley while Pospisil did the same at the Tyson. During both games, Stezka possessed 2-0 leads after two periods.
“Sioux City is a very skilled team with lots of depth,” said Muse, whose team posted a five-game semifinal win over Youngstown, then reached the Clark Cup Finals for the first time ever following a four-game win over Dubuque. “We haven’t played them for a while, but we have a good feel for what type of a team they are. They have a lot of pieces. Their depth throughout stands out. They have a lot of skill.
“Their goaltending is something for sure. (Matiss Kivlenieks) has played really well all year. He’s done a great job for them. He shows a calm presence. He has size and athleticism.”
Kivlenieks, the USHL’s goaltender and player of the year, will see the Steel for the first time tonight. Todd Scott, the Musketeers’ likely starting goaltender for the 2017-18 season, played in both games during the regular season. Scott was the Musketeers’ third-round pick in the 2016 Phase I Draft.
The two teams have something in common besides their scoring balance, defensemen depth and goaltending. They improved their teams through February trades.
Sioux City’s received Tarek Baker from Bloomington and three players from Tri-City – Odeen Tufto, Charlie Kelleher and Joey Matthews; the latter was a defenseman for the Tri-City team that won last year’s Clark Cup championship.
Tri-City also dealt goaltender Dayton Rasmussen to Chicago. Forward Jason O’Neill arrived to Muse’s squad from Sioux Falls while defenseman Ben Mirageas, a potential NHL draft pick this summer, came from Bloomington in exchange for former Musketeer Walker Duehr.
“All of the guys we acquired acclimated well and made an impact for sure,” said Muse. “We made good trades. We looked for specific needs which helped this overall group. Our GM (general manager) and our scouting staff identified players who fit into our overall group.
“We were excited about the group we had going into the start of the year, but we knew it was a long season and a lot of different things had to happen to still be playing in the middle of May,” he added. “We felt this group pushed each other the entire year. We faced times when things weren’t going and times when we faced adversity, but our guys handled all of the situations well.”
Again, it’s a similarity with the Musketeers. The two coaches share the same mindset on focusing on what his team has to do win without worrying about the opponent.
Varady simply wants his team to play a steady defensive game. He figures if they can play over the top of Chicago’s talented forwards, it will make it difficult for them to find space on the ice.
In essence, that’s what happened in series wins over Des Moines and Waterloo. It was more than just Kivlenieks, who thus far has converted 227 of 239 save attempts for 95.0 percent.
“We don’t talk about home ice,” said Varady. “To be successful, you have to win at home and on the road. For us, we love to be home because the fan base at the Tyson has a lot of energy.
“For that reason, it’s great in terms of an advantage, but we don’t feel any different anywhere. Wherever we play, it’s the same for us. We just want to make sure we live in the moment and that moment is 7 o’clock when the puck drops.”